The apostle Paul, arguably one of the first great evangelists, begins his first letter to the church at Corinth by affirming his calling: “Christ did not send me to baptize but to proclaim the gospel.”1 The gospel Paul preaches to the Jews and Gentile Greeks in Corinth is “the message about the cross… the power of God.”2 However, this was a message neither group wanted to hear. Even though Paul knew how the “Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom,” he remained faithful to his evangelistic calling: “but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.”3 Evangelism according to Paul is a distinctly cruciform practice. The cross of Christ is its sole content and no one – neither Jews nor Gentiles, neither Americans nor Iranians, neither black nor white, neither male nor female, neither rich nor poor – wants to hear about the cross because the cross confronts; it is a matter of life and death.
At the church in which I was raised, the cross held a central place in the practice of evangelism. One could hardly imagine explaining the Christian faith without mentioning the cross. It was used as the prime evidence to demonstrate both humanity’s utter depravity and God’s unconditional love. While the cross was essential to the logic of evangelism, it was hardly a characteristic of the lives – both individual and social – of the evangelists. The message of the cross was preached from positions of cultural, political, religious and economic privilege. Church members were the upright citizens, the hardest workers, the trendsetters, and the decision makers. The cross no longer confronted their lives; it had completed its work the moment they “accepted Jesus” as their “personal Lord and Savior.” It was now an abstract, verbal tool they could use to wield divine power over others. Evangelism was a campaign speech, a T.V. commercial thinly veiled in the language of “cross”, “sin,” “God’s love,” and “salvation.” Its goal was an individual decision, sealed by a quick recitation of words, which made Jesus the new “King of your life” but led to very few real changes beyond the rejection of individual vices like drinking, smoking, and casual sex. Evangelism preached the cross but refused to live under its power.
As Bryan Stone notes in Evangelism after Christendom, this kind of evangelism is “neither welcomed nor warranted” in the new post-Christian reality of mainstream American culture.4 The “e-word” has become a “barrier to mutual respect, careful listening, open sharing, and cooperation” arising from “an attitude of intolerance and superiority toward others” which leads to “a belligerent and one-sided attempt to convert others to our way of seeing things.”5 It is the “blessing” of Christendom which has allowed the church in America to preach the cross without becoming a people of the cross. As this reality fades away, some in the church turn to more creative, more relevant techniques to communicate the gospel more effectively; others look to philosophy to shore up the gospel’s intellectual bona fides; still others commend the benefits of a gospel lifestyle – anything but the cross. Stone diagnoses the situation clearly: “what the gospel needs most is not intellectual brokers or cultural diplomats but rather saints who have taken up the way of the cross and in whose lives the gospel is visible, palpable, and true.”6 Evangelism in post-Christendom America which preaches the cross without the social witness of a people who live together under the cross is vacuous and vain.
The apostle Paul rejected any other foundation for his evangelism and relied completely on “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power, so that your faith might rest not on human wisdom but on the power of God.”7 The power of the cross is seen not in its violence but in the resurrecting power of the Spirit it unleashes which creates the possibility of a new creation kind of people. This is a people who are being “formed imaginatively by the Holy Spirit through core practices such as worship, forgiveness, hospitality, and economic sharing into a distinctive people in the world, a new social option, the body of Christ.”8 In order to preach Christ crucified today, the verbal proclamation of evangelism must be accompanied – if not replaced by – a “visible and embodied offer made by a Christ-shaped social body” which invites “participation in a community rather than a mere assent to a set of ideas.”9 Because the cross confronts all cultures, this kind of evangelism is seen as a practice of foolishness, weakness, and shame: “but God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are, so that no one might boast in the presence of God.”10
Evangelism is an invitation into the story of God’s reign coming to the world and turning it upside down. In the midst of a pluralist, violent, individualist, wealth-seeking culture, it is the work of a people whose individual and social lives have been and are continually being shaped by the story of the God who brings home the outcast, restores the marginalized, and resurrects the crucified.
1 1 Cor. 1:17.
2 1 Cor. 1:18.
3 1 Cor. 1:22-23.
4 Bryan Stone, Evangelism after Christendom: The Theology and Practice of Christian Witness (Grand Rapids, MI: Brazos Press, 2007), 10.
5 Stone, 10.
6 Stone, 12.
7 1 Cor. 2:4,5.
8 Stone, 15.
9 Stone, 249.
10 1 Cor. 1:27-29.